The verdict on Msgr. William J. Lynn has been rendered; it is very big news, and yet that verdict is not the one that occupies me this day.
I was 11 as I looked out the window of my front porch toward the near-blackness of early morning. Mom stood at my side, and I held my cassock and surplice in hand. At 5 a.m. I kissed my mother and ran outside as Father's car stopped to pick me up on the other side of Main Street. It was my week to serve as altar boy at the 5:30 Mass in the lovely little chapel at Fitzgerald Mercy Hospital just two blocks away. I can still see Mom's trusting smile as I ventured into the wintry darkness and into Father's waiting car.
Much has been lost by my church since the child-abuse horror broke into public consciousness a decade ago. None of these losses, except those occasioned by the beastly acts themselves, can match the loss of that trusting smile on the faces of Catholic mothers everywhere. The mothers of today's 11-year-old sons and daughters have issued their own verdict, and it is ominous. They are far less apt to release their children from their safe embrace to enter the car of a parish priest.
Rocco Palmo, Philadelphia-based author of the Whispers in the Loggia website, the place to go for what's happening in worldwide Catholicism, has said that "a very different church is going to emerge from this" latest turn in the sex-abuse scandal. He is speaking of the hierarchical American church of bishops and cardinals, chanceries and palaces — the mansion in Philadelphia is up for sale, a sure sign of some kind of change.
My focus, blurred by anger at my church's betrayers yet softened by the constancy of the living saints among us, zooms to the more important ways my church has been altered and the ways it has indeed remained the same.
The giving, loving, openhanded service of greathearted Catholics has not changed at all and remains a steady, silent engine feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting and tending to the sick, educating the young, and lifting souls and bodies to the Christ who urged all who are weary and heavy laden to come to him and find rest (Matthew 11:28).
Heroes like our own Sister Mary Scullion, who told Time, "I look forward to being part of a country and a world where homelessness is a thing of the past." Heroes like my 7-year-old grandson Cai Luzak, who trained and ran a mile to fundraise for Operation Smile, which provides cleft-palate restoration to children everywhere. In between are thousands of Christ's own, doing what they've always done and will continue to do no matter what sins befall us.
Yet our church has certainly changed. Through the heinous acts of monsters who should have protected our young at the cost of their own lives, and through the inaction of leaders who should have acted to stop them, we are subjected to the disappointed scrutiny of those of other faiths and those of no faith. Likewise, we are subjected to the merciless scrutiny of some believers and unbelievers who would not be the least concerned if our church was eradicated from the face of the Earth.
The civil authorities, with their judges and juries, fines and prisons, will offer us no cure, no solution. Those among us Catholics who have broken the law must face trial and punishment for their crimes. That is as it should be, but it will not cleanse our church or bring it closer to the sacred heart of Jesus, who said, "I am the good shepherd. I know mine and mine know me" (John 10:14).
I was an adult when I learned what that quote really meant. (You had to be a first-century shepherd to get it right off the bat.) You see, there were good shepherds and bad shepherds. In a place where different flocks of sheep shared the same grazing lands, bad shepherds were unable to tell their sheep from those of another flock; nor did they mingle with their sheep enough that the sheep could distinguish their shepherds from the other shepherds.
The good shepherds knew their own and could gather all their flocks and only their flocks. The sheep helped, because the sheep knew the shepherd, too. "I know mine and mine know me."
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput is a devoted lover of our church. He is determined to lead us back to wholeness, and he is just as determined that we will not be destroyed by those who do not wish us well. Balancing those two elements of his mission is no easy task, but there is no question which is more important. A church preserved yet not made whole is one that is mortally wounded, one that was not worth saving in the first place.
The task of restoration is as simple as it is confoundingly difficult. It is to restore the easy smile of trust to the face of the mother about to release her 11-year-old son into the car of a waiting priest on a dark and icy winter's morning. The good shepherd knows these mothers, as he knows his own Blessed Mother, who once lost him as a boy of that age. Young Jesus was found by his distraught mother, safe and relaxed — among the priests of his day.
In my church today, a leader's task is to know those mothers and make sure those mothers know him. That is very hard work in an institution that has set up multiple barriers between bishops and mothers, barriers that Jesus would have simply ignored. Yet the mandate remains: If you are a good shepherd, you will find your flocks, Excellencies and Eminences, and they will turn to you healed and trusting, and when you say, "Let the children come and do not hinder them," they will be able to send their beloved sons and daughters back to you. They will smile again.
No bishop living today will see that trusting smile fully restored, but no living bishop can dodge the moral imperative to begin the healing. There will be more trials and more juries and more lengthy deliberations, but it is the mothers who will render the verdict that counts.